The Other Perfectionism

“There is no art delivered to mankind that hath not the works of nature for [its] principle object, without which they could not consist, and on which they so depend as they become actors and players, as it were, of what nature will have set forth.” – Philip Sidney

I’ve never been a perfectionist in the sense that I’m totally content to show my work when it’s not quite done or ready. I’ve long believed that if you wait until you’re ready then you’ll never get anywhere. Even if I had been a perfectionist then school would have taught me otherwise.

I almost never had the time to reread assignments before I submitted them. I had just enough time (sometimes not enough time) to write something, anything, and hand it in. So I got very used to the red pen. The final grade meant less and less to me over time.

While I was never a perfectionist, I have always been a pedant for originality. If I was writing something and then I found out that someone had already done something like it, I would pretty much give up. I was quickly judgmental of stories with familiar ideas in them. Since then, I’ve developed a bad habit of abandoning any project that doesn’t have some exceptional idea behind it.

It’s good to push yourself but some standards are so high that you can never start working. Therein lies the difference between two types of perfectionism.

The first kind, the common kind, is the unwillingness to consider a work finished until it is absolutely perfect. This leads people to spend forever on a project that never ends. The other perfectionism, the one I have, happens right at the beginning. It’s a perfectionism of concept rather than a perfectionism of quality. It’s the difference between never finishing a work and never starting one.

Overcoming the first is easier, I think. All you need is to make a conscious decision to let go. Overcoming the second is harder because you don’t have a work to let go of. Rather, it takes a reevaluated attitude towards creativity. Artists cannot create ex nihilo. Very rarely will someone invent a new genre or create something that has never been created before, and even then those gifted artists build their work on nature.

The other perfectionism stems from a dissatisfaction with nature or its neglect. Artists can’t draw from much else. To myself and to anyone else who struggles with this kind of perfectionism, I recommend adopting a new humility towards their art. The best works of art are born of simple and understandable ideas.

There are some things that are common to almost all of us as human beings. That is nature, our subject and our inspiration. And there are ways we experience and interpret such things that are unique to all of us as individuals. That is our originality. When those two things come together you get an idea for a work that is perfect enough for the purposes of the artist.


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